Professor Emeritus Brent Funderburk, a William L. Giles Distinguished Professor of Art at Mississippi State University, points out elements Wednesday of William Steene’s mural in Lee Hall to Alisha Street of the university’s English Department. The mural, commissioned in 1922, honors students of MSU — then the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Mississippi — who lost their lives in World War I. Veterans Day 2018 marks the centennial of the end of combat in the Great War. Photo by: Laura Daniels/Special to The Dispatch
November 11, 2018 1:47:10 AM
Todd Rowan of Starkville was just a youngster exploring the Mississippi State campus when he first came across one of the largest paintings he'd ever seen. The imposing figures in artist William Steene's sweeping 12-by-16-foot mural in Lee Hall towered above him. Some of them carried weapons and, to a child, the woman at the center of the dramatic scene must have looked like royalty. The theme was probably lost on one so young, but in the years since, Rowan has studied the mural many times over. He's a muralist himself now, with unique appreciation for Steene's creation of one of the state's prominent World War I memorials. It honors 55 students of the then-Agricultural and Mechanical College of Mississippi who put down their books, took up arms and paid the ultimate sacrifice.
Almost a century after Steene was commissioned by A&M alumni to paint the mural, it still stands in tribute, inspiring viewers like Rowan, especially today -- Veterans Day 2018, which marks 100 years since the initial armistice signaling an end to combat in the Great War.
The impressive artwork fits into the tapestry of MSU's commitment to men and women who serve, said Sid Salter. He is chief communications officer at the university that is home to the G.V. "Sonny" Montgomery Center for America's Veterans. In August, the school recognized for its veteran-friendly campus and culture announced establishment of the Bulldog Free Tuition Program for Mississippi National Guard members enrolled full-time.
"I think the fact that the center of our campus is the Drill Field points up that MSU is very proud of our military heritage," Salter said. That so many students have served, since the university's founding in 1878 to today, "makes the mural something we take a lot of pride in because it reflects the spirit and the sacrifice of all those cadets who walked and marched and drilled on that space," he continued.
New York transplant
Exactly how New York-born William Robert Steene (1887-1965) -- who studied with early-20th century masters in Europe and America and became a nationally known portrait painter of presidents and dignitaries -- came to paint in Mississippi may be something of a mystery, but it seems safe to say he liked the place.
"He lived in Columbus for a few years, and he really loved the Gulf Coast," said Brent Funderburk, MSU professor emeritus and William L. Giles Distinguished Professor of Art. "He also lived in Ocean Springs and spent the last 14 years of his life there."
Funderburk has frequently taken art students to the mural to study Steene's work.
"It's heroic in scale and in subject. It deals with multiple figures, and it's very beautifully modeled," he said. "Steene studied with the great American teacher and painter Robert Henri at the National Academy of Design, and a lot of what I teach is from the foundation of Henri. He's considered perhaps the best teacher in his time that brought European classical knowledge to the studios in the U.S."
On his way to eventually painting President Franklin D. Roosevelt, golfing legend Robert Trent "Bobby" Jones, U.S. Sen. and former Mississippi Gov. Theodore Bilbo and Chicago Art Institute Honorary President Frank C. Logan, Steene was in Starkville, applying his moving mural in oil on canvas for Lee Hall.
Steene's mural depicts young A&M students preparing for their chosen vocations. They carry textbooks and implements of their hoped-for careers. Behind them are green fields, but storm clouds of war gather in the distance. The young men are pictured again, this time discarding their textbooks, which are replaced with guns. In the background, the campus smoke stack and twin towers of the Textile Building are visible.
In the mural's center, the students have become soldiers and sailors defending civilization, personified by a seated female figure. Her right hand holds a closed book, representing the end of academics. Her left hand lifts a torch of liberty. The globe below her is symbolic of the world war. A kneeling male figure holds a scroll containing the charter of human rights. The college is identified with the letters "A" and "M" within a circle in the foreground. Above it all reads, "Who gave their merry youth away for country and for God."
"I remember seeing it growing up as a kid," said Rowan, a graduating senior in fine art. He recently, with another student, completed a 50-foot-long mural in the Dunn-Seiler Geology Museum on campus. "I've always been interested in art; it was always my destiny to be in art, and when you see something like that, especially in Mississippi where public art isn't always so prominent, you stop and you look and you pay attention."
He marvels at the process Steene must have gone through in the early 1920s to paint such a large-scale work.
"It's hard to think it's been almost 100 years," Rowen said. "This was well before any sort of digital (technology) to help with something like getting (a design) from small to large scale and still keeping it sound. I have the luxury of things like projectors and computers that artists of that time didn't have."
Alice Lancaster of the Bernard Romans DAR Chapter in Columbus believes preserving and honoring the past is an important responsibility. Earlier chapter members compiled newspapers clippings, letters and records of those from Lowndes County who served in World War I. They are available for the public to view in the Billups-Garth Archives at the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library. The mural, she said, is also a way of preserving and honoring.
"The lineage societies of our country deeply appreciate towns and universities conserving paintings like this mural for our children because it teaches the history of our country and its citizens."
Salter said, "It links us to the very first days of the university and the commitment to our service personnel, to our veterans and particularly to the Mississippi State students who left the campus to go serve their country in time of war. It makes that mural worth honoring and maintaining."
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